78 ’til 79: The Lost Album
By Jon Dolan
Punk’s democratization of rock ‘n’ roll in the late 70s is perhaps the single most romantic moment in the history of the music–at least to those of us who weren’t there to step in the vomit. With the birth of DIY came a support system of fanzines, labels, small clubs, and adventurous friends that gave bands time to evolve at their own pace, and more fascinating still, it was a worldwide phenomenon. And few bands in the world made their evolution the center of their music so plangently as the Go-Betweens, from Queensland, Australia, half the world away from New York and London alike. Over the course of six albums the band’s two songwriters, Robert Forster and Grant McLennan, charted their struggle for self-awareness, documenting the process of self-discovery once characterized by the Feelies as the act of becoming what you are. What they became was the most interesting pop band of the 80s, rivaled only by R.E.M.
Extrapolating from their main influences–mid-60s Dylan, the Velvet Underground, Jonathan Richman, the Only Ones, (very) early Cure–they began thin, angular, and rarely overtly tuneful. Over the years, they smoothed out their sound, writing airy, elegant ballads gorgeous enough to redeem lyrics like “I got hired but I got tired of draining the pool for you / I got tired but not so blue to see the cracks in you.” And on their two late-career classics, Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express (1986) and Tallulah (1987), Forster and McLennan, bassist Robert Vickers, drummer Lindy Morrison, and (on the latter) violinist-oboist Amanda Brown hitched their increasingly resonant tunes to a bare naked emotionalism that was refreshingly distinct from R.E.M.’s early mumblings, the Dream Syndicate’s retro-inactive psych rock, the Cure’s drear, or the lo-fi obscurantism of the neighboring New Zealand scene.
Issued this week, 78 ’til 79: The Lost Album takes us back to Brisbane, capital of the mostly rural, uniformly conservative Queensland (think Dallas), a region whose only musical export to date had been the Bee Gees. The 13 songs it collects, the Go-Betweens’ first two singles and a slew of two-track bedroom recordings made years before the band’s debut, Send Me a Lullaby (1981), sound like nothing they did on either their early albums or their late great ones. For a fan, hearing it is like finding new photos of an old flame that force you to rethink every step of a relationship you thought you’d made sense of years ago.
The band started out as a friendship Robert Forster has characterized as “platonic homosexuality.” According to David Nichols’s The Go-Betweens, Forster was an ardently odd teen who liked to satirize the hypermasculine world of Brisbane sports by running up the soccer field yelling, “Let’s camp it up!” Grant McLennan was the shy son of a doctor who had died when he was four, and spent his youth writing ballads in imitation of famous Australian poet Banjo Paterson before moving on to the larger Anglo canon. In his teens he developed an obsession with film, or at least film magazines. (The French New Wave classics he read about rarely made it to Brisbane.) It was a film magazine and a Ry Cooder record underneath McLennan’s arm that prompted Forster to approach him, and film that gave them the subject of the single they released with original drummer Tim Mustafa to inaugurate the Go-Betweens, “Lee Remick.”
Despite the lines “She comes from Ireland / She’s very beautiful / I come from Brisbane / And I’m quite plain,” Forster’s ode to Remick isn’t a love song, and it’s only vestigially related to the kind of pop-culture fetishizing made hip by Redd Kross. Skittish and punchy, with a terse chorus or two of ba ba ba ba bas, it seems more than anything a slightly clunky attempt to rewrite Richman’s “Roadrunner” or the Velvets’ “Sweet Jane” as his own peculiar theme of outsider identification. The B side, “Karen,” is the real love song, a skeletal, moody, mid-tempo-then-speeding-up-as-the-blood-boils ode to a librarian who helped Forster find Hemingway, Chandler, Genet, Brecht, and Joyce: “She always makes the right choice!” The tunes won the band raves in England and attracted the interest of the pioneering Scottish pop label Postcard, which released a different single by the band in 1980.
The predominant sound of “Lee Remick,” and of The Lost Album in general, is the sound of isolation. The bedroom demos alternate between 60s power-pop rave-ups and self-consciously gloomy ballads, played by kids as precious and naive as lines like “Sailing boats of red and blue glide across the sea / Like the wind that blows their sails / Summer’s melting my mind.” Forster’s liner notes remind us: “For people that don’t dig it, it can sound coy, derivative and annoyingly camp. That comes from a closed environment. That comes before Grant and I leave Brisbane, confront the world and realise we have to start over again.” Indeed, the three poseurs on the album’s cover define themselves by their pretensions: they’re standing in front of pictures of Bob Dylan and Che Guevara and a sign that reads “The Pied Piper Follows Us,” and McLennan’s wearing a “Get Outta the Car Ochs” T-shirt. But Forster is only half right: when they did hone their skills and brighten their sound, the sentiments may have matured beyond something as petty and peppy as “Lee Remick,” but that initial isolation was part of the Go-Betweens’ brilliance, and it stayed with them throughout their career.
The album is bookended by the band’s first two singles; it opens with “Lee Remick” b/w “Karen” and ends with “People Say” b/w “Don’t Let Him Come Back”–two songs Geoff Travis of London’s Rough Trade label, which later would put out Send Me a Lullaby, thought were “too commercial.” But that seems to say more about the time and the place than the Go-Betweens. Fueled by what sounds like a toy organ, the most pronounced melody of the band’s early career, and Forster’s almost gleeful loathing, “People Say” kisses off a love object with Dylan-esque misogyny (“The things you love / The things you hold / That are priceless / But still sold”). The B side, propelled by taut snare rolls and an admittedly professional-sounding guitar solo, features McLennan and Forster mimicking a chant they might’ve been assailed with on the streets of Brisbane: “Who’s that dressed in black / Who’s that in his apartment / With his crazy walk / Don’t let him come back.”
The singles are technically the gems of The Lost Album, and the record isn’t a particularly good introduction to the great band the Go-Betweens would become. But for fans the nine bedroom recordings offer a glimpse at how they got there; you can actually hear them weeding out their defects. The songs range from the maudlin “Summer’s Melting My Mind” (quoted above) to the cumbersome “Long Lonely Day” to the angular “Obsession With You” to the Richman-esque antiballad “Love Wasn’t Made for You and Me” (which contains the great couplet “When it’s late at night and I just wanna rock / You take all your records and say it’s ten o’clock”). And while the rave-ups don’t go over nearly as well as the hushed “The Sound of Rain,” with its gentle Velvetsy riffing, there’s a joy to them that’s barely devalued by the band’s exceptional lack of chops. This is the sound of premature expression, impassioned inarticulateness, the irrepressible urge of youth to say everything one’s heart desires in three minutes or less, the proud realization that, yes, you are in fact in your own band. Not quite the sound of becoming what you are, maybe, but the sound of figuring out the geography of where you need to be. And as inelegant as it may often sound, there’s magic in that too.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): album cover.